Auburn researchers: Poor sleep in childhood could lead to mental health problems in young people

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Auburn University researchers have found that poor sleep in childhood continues to predict mental health problems through adolescence.

While some researchers study sleep retrospectively, the Auburn team, led by world-renowned sleep expert and the Leonard Peterson & Co., Inc. Professor Mona El-Sheikh, studied the same group of children for nine years. By conducting a multiyear longitudinal study, researchers learned that children who had higher sleep-wake problems—such as difficulty sleeping and difficulty waking up in the morning—during late childhood had higher levels of mental health problems in adolescence, even after considering childhood mental health and sleep-wake problems in adolescence.

The research was conducted at Auburn University by El-Sheikh, Professor Emeritus Joseph Buckhalt, Professor Stephen Erath, Associate Professor Ben Hinnant and postdoctoral fellows Mina Shimizu and Megan Zeringue. All are from the Department of Human Development and Family Science in Auburn’s College of Human Sciences; Buckhalt, however, spent his career in Auburn’s College of Education.

The study, “Trajectories of Sleep Problems in Childhood: Associations with Mental Health in Adolescence,” was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, or NHLBI, of the National Institutes of Health and published in the October issue of SLEEP, the international journal for sleep and circadian science and the official publication of the Sleep Research Society.

“Continuity of funding from NHLBI over many years has allowed us to conduct long-term assessments and analyses,” said El-Sheikh. “Our previous research has discovered many ways that poor sleep can be detrimental over shorter time frames, but this study is novel in its indication that early sleep problems early in childhood are related to health outcomes many years later.”

The team examined initial levels of sleep-wake problems in 199 youth at ages 9, 10 and 11 and changes in these same problems across age 18, and determined that the persistence of such problems over time is associated with mental health concerns in adolescence.

Researchers found that children who had higher levels of sleep-wake problems at age 9 continued to have higher levels of such problems at ages 10 and 11. Those who had sleep-wake problems at age 9 grew up to have depressive symptoms and anxiety at 18.

These findings show that childhood sleep problems may persist and predict adolescent mental health, even when one takes into account other variables that can affect sleep in adolescence.

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